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Dear All,

This site is now closed.

I’ve switched all the reviews over to the CLASSICS FOR ALL main site.

It has been a blast.

John

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ANCIENT OBSCENITIES: THEIR NATURE AND USE IN THE ANCIENT GREEK AND ROMAN WORLDS

Ed. by Dorota Dutsch and Ann Suter

Michigan (2015) h/b 356pp £90.95 (ISBN 9780472119646)

This collection of twelve essays grew out of a conference at Ann Arbor in 2008 and certainly makes for interesting and surprisingly varied reading. Caveat lector—the writers are not shy about translating the ancient obscenities into their modern (American) equivalents and the book is not for the faint-hearted. The essays cover obvious literary sources (Hipponax, Aristophanes, Juvenal, the carmina priapea) along with far less obvious literary sources (Herodotus, the Attic orators and Plautus) as well as the graffiti and the imagery of Priapus in Pompeii and the female exhibitionism known as the anasyrma.

There are certainly some odd choices here. Looking for filth in the orators is a bit like looking for it in The Church Times, and the only surprise is that anyone is surprised at its scarcity. Jess Miner homes in on ps-Demosthenes’ attack on Neaera, but the key obscenity she needs for her case – that Neara made her living ‘from three holes’ (Demosthenes 59.108) – is a disputed reading and one not universally accepted. She does remind us, however, that the lawcourts imposed a certain decorum on their speakers and this says something about the ancient attitude towards obscenity and the orators’ skilful use of euphemism and innuendo.

In the case of the chapter on Herodotus, the title of the paper (ou kata nomon) refers of course to Pisistratus’ refusal to give Megacles any grandchildren and the sexual practice was probably Onan’s method of coitus interruptus rather than any more sophisticated vices. Lateiner tells us here (p. 121) that the ‘litotic euphemism’ implies ‘various conceivable sexual diversions’ and thinks presumably that Herodotus is implying more than he says for prurient reasons. ‘Conceivable’ is perhaps not the mot juste here—that was the whole point—and anyway the interesting thing about this episode is not the anatomical detail (which Herodotus does not explain) but the political attitude of these men and the dynastic end-result. Lateiner struggles to find obscenity in the father of history and ends up widening the definition of obscenity to include accounts of cannibalism, Periander’s necrophilia, the voyeurism of Gyges forced to spy on Kandaules’ wife, incestuous dreaming and torture such as Xerxes impaling Sataspes. Here again, however, Herodotus’ racy stories are told not primarily with a view to titillate but to tell the whole truth, ‘wonders’ and all. Herodotus tells us of the odd ways in which the Egyptians urinate not as a form of obscene narrative but perhaps to underline his recurring theme of the different nomoi obtaining in different lands. It is hard to see these as ‘obscene incidents’. There is far more obvious obscenity in the fragments of Hipponax and Kirk Ormand illustrates the poet’s use of filth in every sense—sexual and scatological—in this outrageous poetry. It is not everyone who can make Archilochus look tame, but Hipponax manages it and Ormand does the filth full justice.

There are also some surprising omissions here. Horace’s Epodes and Satires Book 1 would have made a far better case-study than Plautus—where the ‘obscenity’ amounts to no more than suggestively bawdy stage business—and Catullus is only examined as a subject of expurgation in the final chapter. The chapter on Aristophanes is interesting on the putative origins of aischrologia in ritual, but less good at examining what the comic poet does with it to win the prize in front of the public. The obscenity in the early plays Acharnians and Knights, for instance, would have been eloquent testimony to the use of obscenity in the Greek world in the early years of the Peloponnesian War.

Juvenal inspires what is possibly the best chapter in the book. Michael Broder here proposes a ‘camp’ interpretation of Satires 2, 6, and 9 and airs the whole debate of how the persona behind the ranting satire is a construct with no necessary connection to any consistent moral attitude. Clearly Juvenal has a constant theme of the topsy-turvy world where men behave like women (2) and women behave like men (6) and Broder brings this out well: poem 9 further shows that in the hands of the unscrupulous omnisexual Naevius there is even a living to be made out of Roman sexual shenanigans. Deviance of behaviour is something which the satirist describes, although he does so without using primary obscenities most of the time, and the way he uses elevated language to discuss the least elevated of subjects is part of his fascination. Many of us still think that the real target of his satire is the deliberate (self-) deception which accompanies deviance rather than the deviance itself—and his real object is the literary game which the poet plays with his audience. Broder argues that the real heroes of these three poems are the deviant men and women whom the persona mocks, and that his ‘camp’ reading ‘allows the postmodern, deviant-friendly reader to let go of his or her nose and take a nice deep whiff of Juvenal’s obscenely comic mockery’.

The final chapter looks at the rehabilitation of the obscene in editions and translations of the classics, a chapter which takes one back in time to the old Loeb editions of (say) Petronius where the filthy passages were left untranslated, Latin text facing Latin text, or where the Sixteen Satires of Juvenal became the Thirteen Satires, and where a Fordyce would omit several poems of Catullus altogether. The new rash of ‘unexpurgated’ translations was clearly designed to be elegant and racy rather than simply obscene, and the chapter is an interesting piece of intellectual and social history.

This is obviously something of a motley collection and readers will find some articles more engaging than others; and the topics are to varying degrees concerned with the title of the book. The opening piece on the anasyrma, for instance—an act in which women flashed their genitalia at others—was enlightening, but felt like something of a false start in a book concerned with obscenity, as the ancient descriptions of the act make it sound more like exuberant (often drink-fuelled) behaviour rather than any stylized or obviously ritual. True, it started with a servant Baubo flashing her bits at the goddess Demeter to cheer her up after the loss of Persephone—not the most obvious method of grief-counselling—but it seems to have worked and started something of a trend. There are chapters where the writers of these pieces perhaps try too hard to squeeze significance out of (e.g.) the light verse which is the Carmina Priapea, or the versified banter which accompanied a triumphant Caesar; and the scatological graffiti come as nothing especially revealing about the lives of the good citizens of Pompeii.

What is most interesting about obscenity is why and how people feel both the need to depict sexual and scatological matters in art and literature, and why the same people also feel the need to censor it—and how different societies operate with different ideas of what constitutes obscenity anyway. The range and the diversity of the chapters collected here confirm—if nothing else—the book’s opening statement that the only consensus in the modern debate about obscenity is that ‘consensus about what constitutes obscenity is hardly possible’ (p.1).

There is, then, no party line in this book, each contributor offering his/her own definition and then applying it to the material; the range of definitions is wide and often seems to be made to suit the material in question. The book is generally well proof-read (although Paetus in chapter 8 (p.177) becomes Petus in chapter 9 (p.207)) and is illustrated with some (relatively tasteful) black-and-white images. I doubt that school librarians will be stocking it—but then that is all part of the point of the book’s argument about the curious place of this material in society and culture.

John Godwin

 

PORTRAITS OF THE VESTAL VIRGINS, PRIESTESSES OF ANCIENT ROME

By Molly M. Lindner

Michigan (2015) h/b 318pp £95.95 (ISBN 9780472118953)

Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, was one of Rome’s most ancient and venerable deities.  Her annual festival, the Vestalia, was held in June.  The priestesses who ministered to Vesta were six ‘Vestal Virgins’.  These were patrician ladies of fine physique, who had been chosen by the Senate.  When appointed, the Vestals were aged between 6 and 10.  To modern eyes that seems a bit young for making career choices.

The Vestals served for at least 30 years and usually longer. They lived together in a special house and their main job was to keep a sacred fire burning on the hearth.  The Chief Vestal (Virgo Vestalis Maxima) was in charge. The Pontifex Maximus had overall control of the college of Vestal Virgins.  After 12 BC that meant the Emperor.

The Vestals had a prominent role in ceremonies to honour Vesta. There was much burning of incense, so that pleasant smells wafted up to heaven.  The goddess also required sacrifices.  Some of these were a bit gory: for example, killing a pregnant cow, extracting the foetuses and then burning them.

In this delightful book Molly Lindner pulls together both literary and archaeological sources to tell the ‘story’ of the Vestals. Contrary to their modern image, they did not live like Catholic nuns.  They played an active part in public life and enjoyed high status.  They had retinues of clients and much business to attend to, both religious and secular.  The great and the good, including the Emperor and senators, were regular visitors to their residence.

The sumptuous house in which these ladies lived underwent many changes over the centuries, especially after the great fire of AD 64. It included a central courtyard in which the statues of prominent Vestals stood.  The remains of the house and many of the statues or their bases came to light during excavations in the 1880s.

The Vestals were presented as exemplars of feminine virtues: in particular inviolability (sanctitas), modesty (pudicitia) and piety in the performance of rituals (pietas).   Any misbehaviour had dire consequences.  If a Vestal let the fire go out, she was beaten.  If she lost her virginity, the punishment was execution by being buried alive.  Mere suspicion of sexual misbehaviour could be fatal for the virgins—Domitian executed four of them on dubious grounds.  Modern notions of employees’ rights and due process had no place in the ancient world.

The centrepiece of the book is chapter 6, the ‘catalogue’ of the sixteen Vestals whose statues (or at least the heads) survive. Eleven come from the second century and five from the early third century.  They range from Chief Vestals to more junior members of the college.  The girl at number 8 in the catalogue seems to be aged about fifteen.  The distinctive feature of all of them is the magnificent headdress.

Professor Lindner gives a fascinating account of the headdresses. For this she draws on Virgil, Ovid, Lucretius and imperial relief sculptures, as well as the sixteen statue heads.  The headdress had three elements:

  • Infulae—strands of wool wrapped around the head in parallel rows, covering the braided hair;
  • Vittae—long strands of wool that hung over the shoulders and back;
  • Suffibula—rectangular fabric, worn over the infulae and vittae when the virgin was sacrificing.

These ladies must have caused quite a sensation, as they passed through the city displaying their fabulous hair-dos. Luckily, whenever the Vestals were out and about, lictors accompanied them ready to beat off any plebs who came too close.

All great institutions must come to an end. The rise of Christianity meant no more public funding for the college of Vestal Virgins.  Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan, took particular exception to the privileges and wealth enjoyed by these ladies.  By the end of the fourth century the Vestal Virgins were disbanded.

This book combines some serious scholarship with much human interest. I commend it to all who enjoy the classics.                                                                                                                                         Rupert Jackson

KEEPING THEIR MARBLES

By Tiffany Jenkins

OUP (2016) h/b 369pp £25.00 (ISBN 9780199657599)

The chances of finding out what museums are for, amongst the professionals at least, are pretty remote. Michael Ames, anthropologist and museum director, argues ‘Representation is a political act. Sponsorship is a political act. Curation is a political act. Working in a museum is a political act.’ And his point is…? J., however, concludes ‘The mission of museums should be to acquire, conserve, research, and display their collections to all’.

What is certain is that in an age of apology, atonement and reparation, museums are in the firing line. Just look where all their stuff came from! The pressure to do the right thing, and here we are talking largely about repatriating objects, is immense and extremely attractive. But J., without adding anything new, elegantly lines up the arguments and provides careful, balanced and well-considered responses. Fifth century Athens is not the same as Greece. The history of an object adds up to more than the circumstance of its origin. Who owns culture anyway? Encyclopaedic museums add value to national displays. Not all national museums will stand up to political scrutiny—it is so easy to rewrite history. Consider the merits of a separated Parthenon collection—one in a topographical context, the other in a (multi) cultural one.

The rise of the ‘identity’ museum, dedicated to a single culture and presenting it as its ‘owners’ would have it presented, has been seen as one of the ‘right things to do’. It restores dignity and identity, draws objects from collections worldwide (mostly willingly), and so on. But how does such a mission square with the ideals of disinterested research and display? And of course, when we get to human remains, the questions of research, display and repatriation (ever since Theseus’s bones were returned from Skyros to Athens) become so much more touchy.

J. is quite clear about what she thinks museums are for, and worries that relatively new preoccupations are damaging the fulfilment of that mission. But it is difficult to see anything like an agreed resolution to the questions thrown up, because the two sides are arguing from wildly different premises: it is logistics versus emotion. The pro-repatriation lobby talks of ‘national pride’, ‘self esteem’, ‘dignity…ancestors’, ‘motherland’, ‘the beating heart of modern Greek identity’. We are told that ‘just as people have souls…so do…monuments’. Try as you will, these arguments will always be sexier than those regarding the greatest good of the objects.

Will 3D printing be a game-changer? What, then, about authenticity? It is a fair guess that things will roll along as they are, on a case by case basis, producing a core of precedents that can be drawn upon as it is thought right. It is also a fair guess that the agenda and arguments will change.

J. has less to say about the role of us punters, but what she says is good: ‘(Other) objects hold the interest of people beyond both that usefulness and sentiment—there is something about them that appears truthful or special to people who are unfamiliar with their original context…….that show how human beings lived, loved and understood their world, in a way that others can relate to.’

At this point your reviewer becomes personal. As a child I would get on the train and travel thirty miles into Cambridge to visit the Fitzwilliam. The experience was always extraordinary. The armoury was a favourite, and I could wander around the cabinets of curiosity less concerned about how ‘correct’ my experience of the objects was than about the experience itself. I remember seeking out parts of the museums that scared me, excited me, puzzled me, without the dead hand of over-explanation, without being shouted at by acres of ‘interpretation panels’. The memory of a suit of medieval Japanese armour still haunts me. I really don’t want to wake up and see that at the end of my bed, but contemplating the possibility is oddly exciting.

I am not arguing for ignorance, but rather for what this kind of over-interpretation has driven out. By all means make the information available; just don’t let it dominate the show and relegate real objects to a secondary role. My heart sank when I visited the Leonardo exhibition at the Laing in Newcastle recently and found the space dominated by yaddah. I retrieved the experience for myself by ignoring it in favour of the drawings. But I guess this malaise was inevitable within the orthodoxies established and underlined by museums courses, and virtually every curator will have gone through that mill. So the experience comes to be about input, not search for meaning. The museum is the end, and no longer the means to an end. Of course, that makes it so much easier to get it right … but the loss!

And this doesn’t let the heritage industry off the hook—far from it. I followed the development of the Beamish outdoor museum in County Durham from conception through to realisation, and have never felt other than disappointment with the experience, if that’s what it is, because, unlike the cabinets of curiosity, it never really engages the imagination or initiates the search. It doesn’t give you anything to do. The rebuilt streets are the end, not the beginning of an experience. What Beamish is trying to achieve is available only in the pages of, say, Dickens, where you are free to wander, see, hear, taste and smell, or in the moving images of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, as you wonder again and again at Leonard Rossiter’s dance at the country fair, and share the embarrassment of all the others there. This kind of imaginative experience is not available at the heritage sites because they are so solidly finite. This is not an argument for treasure hunts or paper trails, by the way: they are just another way of submitting to interpreto-terror.

So what do we do about it? When I was first taught how to write open- and distance- learning programmes, the main emphasis was on identifying, agreeing and meeting the expectations of the learner. Of course there will be a need for knowledge and understanding. The question is, how do you get the learner to engage, make it their own, willingly and actively embark on the quest, work for it, if you like, because if the learner/ visitor makes the investment, then they will get the return. I’m now thinking primarily of groups visiting museums – schools, tourists, interest groups (individuals must, I fear, be responsible for their own motivation).

Take the real case of a visit to a collection of Roman inscriptions. The group should be helped to establish their own expectations, which can be done through a process of dialectic. What are inscriptions for? Why do people set them up? What categories do they appear in—public, private, political, religious, rhetorical? Do they work? How? What do inscriptions tell you? How do they make you feel? What do you understand because of them at the end of your visit that you didn’t before that? Does this affect your life in any way? How? Do you walk down the street in the same way as you did before? Do you look in the same places? Do you remember the same things after a walk? What is evidence anyway?

If this is done in the right way, you avoid telling them what you’re going to show them, showing them, and telling them what you’ve shown them. You are opening up a whole range of possibilities for their own quest and making possible a range of sensations and experiences that are personally meaningful and enjoyable, just as with the cabinets of curiosity. Each visitor tailor-makes their own visit, and in the twenty minutes or so it takes, there is the opportunity to transform the experience. Museums can do better than one-size-fits-all.

Adrian Spooner

CICERO ON ‘HOW TO GROW OLD’

Tr. with an introduction by Philip Freeman

Princeton (2016) h/b 195pp £12.95 ISBN 9780691167701

The authority where the reviewer lives has recently sponsored an initiative entitled ‘Ageing well in our town’, and are offering leaflets and workshops on combating loneliness, keeping mentally and physically active, eating sensibly etc., though, interestingly, not on preparing for a good death.

Growing old well has, of course, been a perennial preoccupation, as the subtitle of Cicero’s De Senectute, ‘Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life’ reminds us.

This is a beautifully presented compact book, and those of us whose eyesight has been affected by advancing years will especially appreciate its clear print, large font and double spacing.

It consists of an introduction, a parallel Latin text and English translation with variant American spellings, short notes, many only a single sentence, helpful to those without an immediate recall of ancient history or literature, and a short list of suggested further reading.

The succinct introduction places the work in the context of Cicero’s personal situation in what were very challenging times for the Roman Republic and its supporters. It then suggests ten lessons which can be drawn from Cicero’s reflections on old age, for example that a good old age begins in youth, and the mind is a muscle which must be exercised. These reflections are presented by Cicero in the form of a conversation between Cato the Elder and two young friends.

The translation adopts an easy, engaging style, which encourages us to believe that we are eavesdropping on an informal conversation. For example, the description of someone as natura tardior is well rendered as ‘aren’t very bright to start with.’ But it can adapt its tone when appropriate to remind us that the oldest and most prolix of the conversationalists has a penchant for quoting poetry and expounding historical and literary allusions.

Inevitably these allusions remind us that this is a work from antiquity: but the ideas, arguments and practical advice which are adduced are timeless and well worth pondering today.

This book does not offer itself as a weighty tome of minute scholarship, but is clearly a distillation of such study, and as a vehicle for introducing readers to the intellectual vigour of the classical world it succeeds brilliantly.

The modern burghers who are behind ‘Ageing well in our town’ would do their fellow citizens a real service in sponsoring a book as thought-provoking as this work from over 2000 years ago. Princeton and Philip Freeman are to be thanked for making it more accessible.

Raymond Morris

STARTING TO TEACH LATIN

By Steven Hunt

Bloomsbury (2016) p/b 193 pp £24.99 (ISBN 9781472537911)

This is a valuable, indeed invaluable book. Replete with the assured wisdom of a creative, insightful and reflective teacher, it is to be treasured not only by those who are starting out on the journey but by everyone at every stage of a teaching career. H.’s illustrations of what works in the classroom and what emphatically doesn’t are highly illuminating. They are usually based on real-life lessons that he has observed, and those who gave the lessons which didn’t work (Case Study 2 is particularly and hilariously blunder-prone) should feel no shame: we have all been there; and H.’s important book will enable all of us to do better. In addition, as a regular visitor to the American Classical League’s annual meetings, H. is splendidly placed to ensure that his counsel will be well worth heeding on the other side of the pond.

The strategies he advocates will result in enjoyable, stimulating and at the same time demanding lessons. He is thoughtful and constructive about ways in which vocabulary and full grammatical understanding (see especially Case Study 1 for the latter) can be mastered, and insistent that this should happen. (Quite why he should be worried about the grammar identification questions in the new GGSE I can’t imagine. Such an activity seems to chime in with his recommended methodology and is very much in line with the Teacher’s Guides to the Cambridge Latin Course.) While he demands high standards, his book is informed throughout by common sense and an awareness of what is realistic. I envy his PGCE students, but we can rejoice that this book will spread his illumination of good practice far beyond the confines of Cambridge.

In only one area does he abandon his tone of amiable advocacy. He is clearly enraged by OCR’s decision—the result of pressure from the book’s villain, one Michael Gove—that 5% of the marks at Latin GCSE should be awarded on four very easy English into Latin sentences, which are in any case optional. At the risk being branded one of those whom he considers crass right-wingers, I do not see any harm in making this option available: we are talking about elementary translation of simple English into Latin (no-one is asking for Gladstone to be rendered into Ciceronian Latin, for heaven’s sake! The most challenging sentence in the specimen paper is the admittedly clunky ‘We greeted the son of the man’); on the contrary it should be a reassuring exercise for pupils, helping them to see whether they have fully mastered a concept. I also think that it would be very straightforward to include such sentences in a non-time-consuming way from the earliest stages. (The Balme/Morwood Oxford Latin Course includes them right from the start.) I feel that H. is being alarmist when he finds it likely that ‘the latest round of examination reform … may close off many of the routes that have recently opened up’. Be that as it may, I also feel that it’s regrettable that Peter Jones, the man who has over the years done as much as anyone for ‘the cause’ should be accused of using his privileged position (meaning what exactly?) ‘to carry the debate away from where it matters’.

That said, I am fully in favour of H.’s earnest wish that teachers of classics should have a meaningful say in the future of their subject. H. is not altogether correct to assert that there was no consultation with teachers about the introduction of the National Curriculum: in fact Pat Easterling, John Murrell and Martin Thorpe (the latter two Executive Secretary and President of JACT respectively) visited Kenneth Baker at York House. Baker ended by saying how happy he was to reassure them—which he had most decidedly not done! But H. is certainly right to feel that at present the voice of the practising professionals is not being heard or listened to nearly enough. It is splendid, however, that he feels able to end his generally excellent book on a note of quiet optimism.

James Morwood—Wadham College, Oxford

MISERY AND FORGIVENESS IN EURIPIDES: MEANING AND STRUCTURE IN THE HIPPOLYTUS

by Boris Nikolsky

The Classical Press of Wales (2015) h/b 280pp £58 (ISBN 9781910589038)

This monograph on Euripides’ Hippolytus has seven dense chapters of analysis which make it a demanding read, one not for the fainthearted and certainly not for the general reader, but it is a thorough and insightful study which will repay the effort for anyone wishing to delve deeply into the play.

N. begins with a moral assessment of the characters’ actions and shows that the only one acting with deliberate ill-will is Aphrodite, who is seeking revenge on Hippolytus for insulting her. This initial ill-will of the goddess leads to a succession of misdeeds and errors committed by the human characters, all motivated by ignorance or misunderstanding of the true facts of the situation. (This is a powerful theme in many Attic tragedies, perhaps best exemplified in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.) As in Athenian law, the involuntary nature of wrongdoing can be a mitigating factor, and here the whole thrust of the play is towards exoneration and forgiveness. N. concludes (p. 19): ‘The world of Hippolytus is governed by the evil will of the gods and natural human weaknesses: it is impossible not to make errors in it, and all errors are excusable.’

Several chapters give thorough analyses of various recurrent motifs which echo throughout the play, interweaving to create ‘a dynamic composition reminiscent of musical counterpoint’. Two such motifs are speech and vision, both of them deceptive, both leading to disaster. Words are prompted by emotions and misunderstandings, and in turn result in more emotions and misunderstandings, which prompt more words, and so on—until Phaedra and Hippolytus both lie dead. Vision too can be deceptive and lead to error, as when the sight of Phaedra’s dead body persuades Theseus to believe her (lying) written message and not Hippolytus’ (true) spoken words.

Another key motif is aidôs, along with its associated virtue sôphrosunê, which together embrace the social virtues of shame, respect, reverence, modesty, chastity, self-restraint, and suchlike. After analysing these, N. goes on to examine how they are presented in Hippolytus and Phaedra, where Hippolytus’ natural chastity contrasts with Phaedra’s acquired, conscious virtue. Recurring verbal motifs also play their part, and N. discusses the role played by the image of the sea, which expresses the miseries and sufferings accompanying human existence (sailing on ‘a sea of troubles’), and that of pristine wild nature.

An insightful chapter deals with the gods’ interactions with humans, vital for any understanding of the play; and the book ends with an analysis of the use of theatre space. I would have welcomed a final chapter drawing all these threads together as a detailed conclusion; but in fact the general conclusion is given briefly in the Introduction: ‘Humans are weak, and therefore they turn out to be not culprits but victims of fate. They will always tend towards virtue, but their natural weakness and the ambivalence of virtue itself lead them to wrong actions. Their conflicts are apparent and mutual blaming is ungrounded, and it is exoneration and forgiveness that is shown as the highest and only pure moral value.’

This is not so very far from Bernard Knox’s conclusion in his seminal 1952 article: ‘Hippolytus’ forgiveness of his father is an affirmation of purely human values in an inhuman universe.’ But here the journey towards N.’s conclusion is quite different, and becomes a rewarding one.

Jenny March